Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 8 General Election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.

The following came from Chris Lee, Democratic candidate for state Senate District 25, which includes the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Kailua, Lanikai, Keolu Hills, Waimanalo and Hawaii Kai. His opponent is Republican Brian Lauro.

Go to Civil Beat’s Election Guide for general information, and check out other candidates on the General Election Ballot.

Candidate for State Senate District 25

Chris Lee
Party Democratic
Age 41
Occupation State legislator/nonprofit leader
Residence Kailua, Oahu

Website

Community organizations/prior offices held

Hawaii State Senate, 2020-present; Hawaii House of Representatives, 2008-2020; Hawaii Meth Project, board of directors; Breakthroughs for Youth at Risk, board of directors; Ala Wai Watershed Association, board of directors; Honolulu Zoo Society, advisory board; University of Hawaii SeaGrant, advisory board; Trees for Honolulu’s Future, advisory board; National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, vice-president.

1. What is the biggest issue facing your district, and what would you do about it?

The biggest issue by far is cost of living and growing economic inequality. This is especially acute in our community. I’ll get into this more below in the cost of living question, but the bottom line is escalating housing prices are the largest part of our rising cost of living. This is chiefly driven by soaring demand from new property hunters either trying to move to Hawaii, or who live elsewhere but want to buy local rental properties to siphon money to their mainland bank accounts.

We can’t legally stop people from buying property under the Constitution, so we have to leverage that outside demand for local benefit by requiring outside property speculators to pay more, which can then subsidize the cost of real housing for local residents.

2. Many people have talked about diversifying the local economy for many years now, and yet Hawaii is still heavily reliant on tourism. What, if anything, should be done differently about tourism and the economy?

Tourists are important, but they should pay a “green fee” to address tourism impacts, protect Hawaii’s environment and boost local jobs. It’s a proven model that works in other island communities.

Additionally, I’ve been fortunate to work hard and successfully pass legislation that has begun to help diversify our economy and create thousands of new jobs. Rebuilding our economy post-Covid-19 is the time to double down and accelerate this change.

We export $8 billion each year to import food and energy. This must change, so I built a coalition and passed Hawaii’s groundbreaking law shifting Hawaii to 100% clean local energy. Progress toward that goal has already reduced Oahu electric rates, saved over half a billion dollars, and boosted the renewable energy industry. Another law I passed directed HECO to let homeowners install solar and batteries, helping solar and construction companies hire thousands of new employees.

To create a new generation of productive small farms, I established the nation’s first program providing local farmers up to $50,000 to assist with growing local organic food. I also created grants to help farmers with compost and reduce energy costs. And I established a program to create composting and food production in schools.

3. An estimated 60% of Hawaii residents are struggling to get by, a problem that reaches far beyond low income and into the middle class, which is disappearing. What ideas do you have to help the middle class and working families who are finding it hard to continue to live here?

I’ve helped pass laws that have already begun to reduce our cost of living and build an economy that works for everyone. I’ve introduced legislation to establish a state earned income tax credit to put cash directly into the pockets of working families and allow paid family leave to care for siblings. Working with colleagues, the Legislature adopted these new policies.

I passed a law barring employers from using non-compete agreements to prevent workers from seeking higher-paying jobs elsewhere. A recent analysis found this law helped local job mobility and increased worker wages by 4%.

Bills I’ve passed to allow more solar have helped reduced electric costs, and as a result of progress toward the state’s 100% clean energy mandate I introduced and helped pass, Hawaii has saved over half a billion dollars as cheaper renewables replace expensive fossil fuels.

I was fortunate to author new laws to reduce the cost of transportation by establishing $500 rebates for electric bikes, rebuilding safer streets so people can safely bike, scoot or walk, and expanding cheaper public transportation. To ensure housing is truly affordable, we should be leveraging foreign and visitor demand to subsidize housing costs for local families.

4. Hawaii has the most lopsided Legislature in the country, with only one Republican in the Senate and only four in the House. How would you ensure there is an open exchange of ideas, transparency and accountability for decisions? What do you see as the consequences of one-party control, and how would you address that?

I tend to work with anyone regardless of party affiliation. When I began organizing to stop the multi-billion-dollar buyout of our local utilities by a mainland corporation who planned to monopolize the market and drive up energy prices by as much as $30 billion over the next few decades, the first thing I did was reach out to Republican leaders. We teamed up and built a diverse coalition that helped block the mainland takeover.

The truth is in the Legislature there are Democrats more conservative than many Republicans, and Republicans more liberal than many Democrats. This means every major issue has a healthy debate and open airing of concerns anytime there is a significant vote.

The United States was among the first modern democracies. That means many nations who followed improved upon our democratic model in many ways. One of those was intentionally building multi-party systems in which there are five, six or dozens of truly competitive parties. This means voters are able to support parties that more closely reflect their interests, rather than being forced into choosing one of only two real options. This results in representation that more closely reflects our population. Hawaii could learn from this.

5. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process? 

I support getting the public engaged in our political process anytime we can. However, with voter apathy so high, and fake information so prevalent, real democracy is beginning to be compromised by outside special interests who can spend millions promoting false narratives to win elections. It’s happening regularly in other states whose initiative processes are frequently hijacked by large corporations and billionaires trying to change the law for their own benefit.

For example, in Florida a group of big electric utilities recently tried to block competition from home solar systems. They spent tens of millions advertising a false narrative to get people to support an amendment that would actually prevent homeowners from installing their own solar panels. They advertised it as a “pro-solar” amendment. It nearly passed.

Initiatives can be beneficial under the right circumstances, but before implementing an initiative process that would open Hawaii to these kinds of predatory interests out to buy elections for their own benefit, we as a community must figure out how to ensure transparency in the policies being promoted in these kinds of situations, and get significantly more voters educated and engaged.

6. Thanks to their campaign war chests and name familiarity, incumbents are almost always re-elected in Hawaii legislative races. Should there be term limits for state legislators, as there are for the governor’s office and county councils? Why or why not?

I’ve introduced bills establishing term limits in legislative races. Term limits are often referenced as a silver bullet to solve all our problems. It definitely has benefits bringing fresh blood to political institutions. However, term limits can also backfire and make corruption worse.

I’ve worked with both Democratic and Republican legislators in states with term limits like Arizona, California and Colorado. Legislators from both parties have shared the same experience – that the quick turnover in elected officials has empowered those who stick around: lobbyists and staffers. These are the ones with institutional knowledge who can leverage legislators knowing they are about to leave, or just wait them out to get their way. It means decisions are more easily influenced by special interests and unelected bureaucrats who are accountable to no one.

This is why Hawaii’s special commission looking at stopping corruption was split on term limits. Moreover, turnover already occurs. A supermajority of both the House and Senate in Hawaii are entirely different people than were elected even 10 years ago.

A more effective solution is simply providing public financing to all credible candidates so elections are won on the merits of ideas, not influenced by money.

7. Hawaii has recently experienced a number of prominent corruption scandals, prompting the state House of Representatives to appoint a commission tasked with improving government transparency through ethics and lobbying reforms. What will you do to ensure accountability at the Legislature? Are you open to ideas such as requiring the Sunshine Law and open records laws to apply to the Legislature or banning campaign contributions during session?

Corruption cannot be tolerated. Period.

I’ve been working to stop this, including looking at these issues. I’ve supported banning campaign fundraising during legislative sessions. In my first year in office I passed an amendment to stop pay-to-play politics by prohibiting state contractors from making political contributions. I also led negotiations and passed a bill barring state leaders from cashing in, which prohibited governors and mayors from being paid by outside interests while serving in office so we don’t have to worry about them making decisions for their own financial benefit.

I also passed a bill to stop the revolving door of governors and state leaders leaving office and immediately getting paid to turn around and lobby their former colleagues. Unfortunately, the governor vetoed this bill.

In addition, following the money is important, so I passed a groundbreaking law requiring secretive super-PACs to disclose who really funds election ads. And I passed another law to boost transparency by requiring candidates to report who funds their campaigns more frequently.

Finally, corruption cannot be tolerated at any level, which is why I also passed a law ending 25 years of secrecy which made records of police misconduct public, including assault and falsifying records.

8. How would you make the Legislature more transparent and accessible to the public? Opening conference committees to the public? Stricter disclosure requirements on lobbying and lobbyists? How could the Legislature change its own internal rules to be more open?

In addition to the laws I worked on I mentioned in question No. 7, to close the revolving door on lobbying and bar state leaders from financial conflicts of interest, there is more that can be done.

Conference committees and hearings could be scheduled with more notice so more people can attend. However this means lengthening the legislative session, which is difficult since the budget must be passed in time to meet the new fiscal year.

The biggest change that most people haven’t yet taken advantage of is remote public access to the process. Following hearings and testifying is accessible online and is easier than ever before, yet so few people do it. At the same time the volume of people reaching out about issues large and small has easily already quadrupled in recent years. Access to elected officials and the process is easier than ever by sending an email or picking up the phone, but resources to respond haven’t kept pace. For example, legislators can usually mail just one or two updates each year to their district, and most people can’t be reached by email or social media. More resources would help keep more people engaged.

9. Hawaii has seen a growing division when it comes to politics, development, health mandates and other issues. What would you do to bridge those gaps and bring people together in spite of their differences?

Political polarization which has put party before country has meant politics has become a winner-takes-all war, rather than a healthy discourse to decide what is best for our people. This has meant parties purposely weaponizing any issue that could give an advantage. In many cases, doing so by intentionally spreading false misinformation or twisting the truth.

But all politics is local, and in Hawaii we can overcome this. I’ve partnered with Republicans on issues many times, from pushing reform of our utilities to taking on climate change, and even protecting basic rights for women. Hawaii proves that we haven’t yet lost hope in collaborative democracy, though if we don’t step up we may see polarization continue.

Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. He was right. But there are definitely better and worse forms of democracy, and as a society we are straying dangerously close to the latter. Now is the time to return to civic participation as a core of education. Now is the time to pay attention, to learn to sift through the BS, so we can all make decisions together based on fact and truth.

10. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed numerous flaws in Hawaii’s structure and systems, from outdated technology to economic disparity. If you could take this moment to reinvent Hawaii, to build on what we’ve learned and create a better state, a better way of doing things, what would you do? Please share One Big Idea you have for Hawaii. Be innovative, but be specific.

One big thing that must be done if we are to succeed in the 21st century, it is letting go of 20th century preconceived notions about what is possible in Hawaii.

We face serious challenges that grow worse each year. Tourism is unsustainable as a sole pillar of the economy. Dependence on imports is unsustainable for economic security. Our economy itself is unsustainable for half of local families.

We fail to meaningfully change these things because we hesitate to risk changing the underlying institutions that 20th century Hawaii was built upon – tax policies, structure of governance, institutions, infrastructure, community hierarchies, businesses too big to fail. Yet, markets, technology, climate, even generational values rapidly change around us. Hawaii has traditionally responded by planning ahead assuming many sacred cows are unchangeable, and trying to change around them. This is why we fail. We must all plan to adapt or risk being violently disrupted.

It sounds simple, but it’s time to put everything on the table. We must imagine the Hawaii we want to see and work backward identifying actionable steps to get there, letting go of the assumptions and sacred cows that traditionally hold us back, so we can all adapt together.

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